I had been contemplating competing in a triathlon last summer — in Colorado everyone and their dog has completed some outrageously athletic feat, and it’s contagious — so I started looking for a wetsuit. These babies aren’t cheap: they range from $75 to upwards of $500, so I hoped I could find a cheaper option at my local second-hand shop.
When I found a spotless, brand-new Zoot wetsuit complete with the original price tag, I knew I’d found a deal. The only problem? It was a men’s extra large, way too big for me. So I did the next best thing besides wearing it: I sold it for rent money.
Even though the suit was about five years old, I sold it for $120 on eBay. Not bad for a $10 purchase!
Tons of hidden gems like the wetsuit are waiting on the often-overlooked shelves and corners of thrift shops, next to your neighbor’s Dumpster or on Craigslist. The trick is knowing which items are worth reselling and which are not. Here’s how to maximize your junk gathering so you’re a secondhand connoisseur — not just a pack rat.
Google the Item Before Buying It
Some items will instinctively set off the cash register noise in your head — you know you’ve just won the thrift-store lottery. Most, though, fit in somewhere between “genius investment” and “thing that takes up space in your garage.”
When you’re not sure about an item, pull out your smartphone and do some quick research. Google it and check for current or past sales on eBay to see whether it’s worth reselling. I like to block out a sizeable chunk of time for my thrifting trips so I have time for this research and don’t have make a gut decision.
Consider Its Age
Some items, like a classically styled designer business suit from two or three seasons ago, can still be a homerun on sites like Threadflip if they’re in good condition. But a “vintage” sewing machine from the 1960s won’t fetch much. Why not? It’s hard to find replacement parts for a machine that old, which makes it hard to repair. (Yes, I learned that one the hard way.)
Choose Brands Known for Their Durability
You might have more luck reselling older models of items from trusted brands because people tend to stick with what worked. Though my sewing machine endeavor didn’t pan out, I did have success with a full-size Jiffy Garment Steamer that looked to be about 10 years old, as this brand is known for its longevity. I picked up the steamer for $7 after my online research revealed the new models go for around $300.
Consider the Season
If you find a chest freezer in good condition for a steal, wait until May or early June to post it on Craigslist. Local gardeners are getting ready to preserve their bounty, and people are starting to have cold foods like ice cream, popsicles and other treats on the brain. They’ll be happy to take that freezer off your hands — for more than they’d likely pay in January.
For those of you who live near a college or university, wait to post furniture until a few weeks before the start of each semester. Many students don’t have a car, so Craigslist can sometimes be their only option. Sweeten the deal by throwing in delivery.
Be Wary of Smells and Damage
If the previous owner was a smoker, chances are you’ll have a hard time reselling the item. Don’t wait until you get home to thoroughly inspect it; sniff, poke, prod, and turn it over, right in the store. You might get a few odd looks, but that’s better than finding a massive hole or other problem once you’ve already bought something.
If there’s a stain on a designer dress, consider the odds of getting the stain out easily or whether it’s something permanent, like ink.
Play to an Upscale Audience
I once bought a bedside table for $5, used it for a year, and then sold it for $40 to a woman who wanted to paint it bright red for her son’s room. Use keywords like “upcycle,” “vintage,” “shabby chic” and “antique” or phrases like “great for a creative project” in your sales postings.
Often, I’ve found that people like to buy used, quirky or thrifty items, but they don’t actually want to step foot inside an urban thrift shop. Do the work for them, and make it appealing for them to take it off your hands.
Wait for Bargain Days
Many thrift stores offer discount days to help move inventory quickly. In Colorado, every other Saturday is a 50%-off day for most items at Goodwill locations. Many thrift stores also offer senior discounts or deals for members who sign up for their rewards programs. Use these tactics to get an extra-thrifty deal on an item.
Consider Fixing and Flipping
If you find a funky piece of furniture with good bones, consider the opportunity cost of refurbishing it before you put it on the market. Check out the “Oops Paint” aisle at stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s for discount paint that other people purchased and returned.
Don’t be afraid to use what you have to make something look antique. I’ve thrown hammers, chains and other household items at pieces of furniture to create an aged look. The straight-out-of-your-grandpa’s-basement look is very chic right now.
Your Turn: What treasures have you found in a thrift shop?
Sarah Kuta is an education reporter in Boulder, Colo., with a penchant for weekend thrifting, furniture refurbishment and good deals. Find her on Twitter: @sarahkuta.